If you are looking for methods to acquire German language basics, there are many ways you could go about this, it all depends on your goals, your time, and your availability. It also depends on the level of language proficiency that you are hoping to achieve. For instance, if you only want to learn a few basic words in German, that will be a very different exercise to gaining a German grammar overview, learning German grammar rules, or learning German language basics.
If you are looking for more than just a few basic words in German and more than the average conversational lessons will offer you, this article will guide you on how to tackle German grammar for beginners.
Where to start?
Your first step to finding a German grammar for beginners course is to do a Google search. Be specific with your keywords, for instance, if you are keen for a solid German grammar overview, you will want to find the right school or private teacher, whether that is online for face-to-face.
In South Africa, there are literally hundreds of options to find private German tutors, and by using a reputable website like Superprof, you could even find one located near to you.
Fortunately, if you are in South Africa and looking to brush up on your German grammar rules, there is no shortage of teachers and we have our strong German history and ongoing connections with Germany to thank for this!
German Language Basics for Foreigners
The thing about learning even basic German is that German grammar rules are so different from English. Some differences are greater than others, in German, the order of words in sentences is different, which is fundamental, but a minor change would be that in German all nouns are capitalised, not only the proper nouns.
Also, words can be combined, resulting in mega words like Schulausflugteilnahmegenehmigung (authorisation for participation in a school outing).
Of course, some German grammar for beginners can be frustrating at first. For example, you might experience that verb tenses are missing or are used differently. You’ll find that continuous tenses don’t express actions that are still happening, but instead, use what is called the simple present tense. This is actually less of a challenge for English students learning German than it is for Germans wanting to learn English because they have to pick up and use a tense which is not used in their language.
On a positive note for German language students, there are relatively few exceptions when it comes to German grammar rules.
In your German grammar overview, you will come across a few exceptions:
- Weak masculines
- Verbs that end in ‘ieren’
- Prefix verbs that are able to be separated
- Pronouns in gender are declined
Other German grammar rules that can prove challenging include some of the following.
German Gender and Cases
Bearing in mind that English does not use gender when it comes to using inanimate objects, as well as the fact that pronouns in gender are declined, the presence of three genders and four cases can prove challenging!
Even in a basic German course, it will not take long for you to discover that there are three genders: feminine, masculine and neuter. And while you might expect that women and even female animals be of the feminine gender, men to be masculine and inanimate objects to be neuter, this is just not the case. Similarly, to how French and Italian work, you’ll find that basic words in German for inanimate objects, are also assigned a gender.
While there a few rules to help establish the gender of a German noun like:
- Words that designate specific things (e.g. months of the year, or compass points)
- Words with specific endings
Unfortunately, though, if you are learning basic German, you will have to learn the gender (or masculine (der), feminine (die) or neuter (das) article) of the word.
Cases and German Grammar Rules
Cases are helpful when trying to determine in what part of speech the noun is functioning. Three rules that you can expect to pick up in a German grammar overview:
- Use the nominative case for both the object and subject of verbs (e.g. to be (sein) and to become (werden).
- Use the accusative for direct objects, indirect and dative objects.
- Use the genitive for the possessive case.
- Look out for locational preposition that either takes the accusative (if there is movement) or the dative when there is none.
Master your German Sentence Structure
Even in a German language basics course, you can expect to take basic words in German and assimilate them into sentences.
At first glance, basic German sentence structure appears to be similar to English:
Subject + Verb+ Dative Object + Accusative Object.
Of course, in English, the placement of an indirect object will depend on whether you are using “to” (the preposition) or not.
The difference is that German can move parts of speech (even adverbs) into the first place and thus bump the subject to be after a verb in third place. Fortunately, you will still be using cases that help to make everything clear.
Remember that the verb is always in second place in the main clauses. If it takes an auxiliary, the auxiliary will take second place, and the infinitive or participle will show up at the end:
Subject, plus an auxiliary verb, plus indirect object, plus direct object, plus the infinitive or participle.
German Subordinate Clauses
In a German grammar overview, you will learn that with secondary clauses, the verb will come at the end and any auxiliaries at the very end:
Conjunction, plus subject, plus indirect object, plus direct object, plus infinitive or participle, plus auxiliary (verb).
The Imperative Voice
When it comes to word order, imperative sentences in German are somewhat different. If you want to put more emphasis on a verb, use it first:
Lasse mich los!
Lerne dein Vokabel!
German Questions and Word Order
When it comes to phrasing questions in German, the structure of the sentence actually depends on the possible outcomes! If a question depends on a yes or no answer, the question word will take first place. This will leave the verb in the second position.
When question sentences require a yes or no answer, the verb will come first, then the subject, followed by the rest.
German Verb Tenses
As already mentioned, German verbs do not have continuous tenses. They do however have a simple present, future tense, and simple past. There are also perfect tenses for all three.
Express the Present in German
If you want to express something that is happening immediately, use the simple present tense. This would be used for a repeated action in the past, too.
I am showering – Ich dusche
Tenses for Past Actions
Generally, the simple past tense which is used mainly in written language and tells of a past action that no longer takes place. For instance:
Ich duschte Gestern – I showered yesterday
To form the present perfect tense, you would use the auxiliary verb ‘sein’ or ‘haben’ in the simple present tense, plus a past participle.
It is very much like the simple past tense and has more or less replaced it in everyday speech.
Ich habe geduscht – I showered
The past perfect tense is formed by using the auxiliary verb ‘sein’ or ‘haben’ in the simple past tense, plus a past participle.
This indicates a past action that took place before another action that was also in the past!
Expressing German in the Future
Using the simple present tense is the best way to express future actions in German. It is used to describe actions that happen in the near future.
German also has a unique future tense for actions that are even further into the future. This is formed by using the simple present verb ‘werden’ as well as the infinitive.
There is also a future perfect tense that takes the simple present tense, ‘werden’ plus the main verb participle, plus the infinitive of ‘sein’ or ‘haben.’
This is used to describe future events that are still expected to happen or events in the past that are over.
Recommended Books for a German Grammar Overview
If you are looking for books that focus on basic German, while still giving you a German grammar overview, try “The Idiots Guide to Learning German, “or “German for Dummies”.
You could also check out:
- Intermediate German for Dummies
- German Essentials for Dummies
- The Everything Essential German Book
- Collins Easy Learning Complete German
- Usborne Language Series (Children’s Books)
- Berlitz (Flashcards)
And finally, if all this sounds very complex (which it is) why not find a private German tutor near you? In South Africa, using a reputable tutoring website like Superprof you could choose from hundreds of German tutors located all over the country. You could opt to learn face-to-face at a time and pace that suits you, or even online.
Also, you could make sure that you choose the right German tutor for you by taking advantage of the fact that most of them offer their first lesson for free! This is really handy to make sure that you are on the same page as your tutor towards learning German grammar for beginners!